Petaluma passes outdoor marijuana growing rule

Card-carrying medical marijuana users and caregivers in Petaluma will be allowed to grow three mature marijuana plants outdoors for their own use, part of a broader city ordinance to balance limited cultivation with the neighborhood impact of large backyard operations.

Two years in the making, the ordinance approved on Monday by the Petaluma City Council was expanded from an earlier proposal in order to include the explicit prohibition of a wide swath of commercial cannabis activities within the city. The move followed a concern that, absent that action by a March 1 deadline, a new statewide licensing program for marijuana producers would allow larger commercial growing of medical marijuana and related activities within city limits.

While arguing that the ban could put constraints on otherwise benign operators — and that more nefarious growers may disregard the rules entirely — medical marijuana advocates lauded the city for an approach that allowed some growing for medical use while leaving room for future tweaks.

“It addresses the key issues. It makes sure that patients with needs to access medicine can cultivate for their personal use,” said Tawnie Logan, executive director of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance.

The decision followed efforts by the Petaluma Police Department, as well as the Petaluma city attorney, to develop a framework that would make it easier to crack down in cases when growing operations were attracting crime, creating a fire hazard or simply annoying neighbors.

An earlier ordinance presented for approval in November was sent back for revisions, following the expression by most council members that the first draft’s outright ban on outdoor growing went too far in its impact on legitimate medical users. Several people identifying as medical marijuana patients testified at the time that the costs and difficulty of growing indoors were significant, and requested that the city embrace some degree of permissible outdoor cultivation.

Based on a precedent set by the city of Healdsburg in 2014, the new ordinance allows three mature plants and an unlimited number of immature plants outdoors, as long as those plants are not seen or smelled. More mature plants could be grown indoors under restrictions like maximum lighting power, with a combined limit of 100 square feet of canopy for indoor and outdoor grows.

Yet despite the change, several speakers called the three-plant limit arbitrary, claiming that the yield would be too paltry to offset the purchase of expensive medical marijuana. Brick-and-mortar dispensaries have been banned in Petaluma since 2007.

“Last year, I grew nine plants in my backyard and got two pounds of medicine. At one ounce per week, I still needed to buy one pound of marijuana for $2,000,” said Charles Cowles, a 30-year Petaluma resident.

Casting the lone dissenting vote, Councilwoman Teresa Barrett argued that the process was being rushed.

“It’s being driven by the deadline,” she said.

Petaluma City Attorney Eric Danly acknowledged that the city was hurrying to position itself to be able to craft its own policy at all, as municipalities may lose the ability to do so under the March 1 deadline in the statewide licensing and regulatory program passed into law last October. Police said they were also eager to see an ordinance in place, as the absence of a local policy for medical growers has made it difficult to identify and address bad actors.

Without a local ordinance, state guidelines allow patients to grow as many plants as a doctor recommends. Police said some grow far more on behalf of several qualified patients, making it difficult to easily identify illegal growers or to embark on a nuisance abatement process in cases of neighbor complaints.

Petaluma Police Chief Patrick Williams said his department did not intend to embark on a crackdown, and noted that the nuisance abatement process is a gradual one. The ordinance would instead give police more ability to focus on those who are boldly and perhaps dangerously flouting the rules.

“We now have reasonable tools, with some clarity of process for our staff,” Williams said. “I think, generally, it will be accepted.”

On the issue of increasing the number of plants allowed outdoors, Councilwoman Kathy Miller said that the six mature plants a neighbor has grown outside in previous years were fragrant enough to keep the windows closed.

“We’re here to try and balance the needs of people who use medical marijuana and the people who have to smell it,” she said.

Marijuana consumption remains illegal under federal law, though California allows it with a physician’s recommendation. State voters are expected to approve a measure to legalize recreational use later this year.

Logan, the director of the Grower’s Alliance, said her group saw the ordinance as a starting point, and planned to lobby the city to reel back its restriction on commercial medical cultivation. The implications can be complex in a system where patients, growers and distributors typically operate in a cooperative model, she said, with potential impacts on flexibility and access.

One person at the meeting, who gave the single name of Moses, said the new ordinance would likely mean relocation for his year-old distribution service in Petaluma, Triple Beam 215. Anchored on a home-based growing operation on the city’s east side, the business has around 100 clients in and around Petaluma.

With such services set to be explicitly banned when originating within city limits or outside of a permitted dispensary elsewhere, he said Petaluma was missing out on the tax or licensing revenue it could generate with a more lenient approach while also pushing out well-meaning operators.

“They’re really missing out on a lot of money,” he said.

Mayor David Glass acknowledged that the nuances of the ordinance may prove to have some unintended implications, but argued that the city would lose the chance to set its own policy if it failed to act by the current deadlines in the trio of laws signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year. He asked staff to bring the ordinance back to the city council for review in 18 months.

“I don’t pretend we’re going to get this exactly the way everybody wants it, or even the way we want it,” he said. “But if we don’t take action by March 1, we and future city councils lose the ability to decide what’s best for Petaluma.”

Other rules require that a qualified patient or caregiver live full-time on the premises, and that growing must not be the primary use of the property. Flammable gas products like butane used to create derivatives of marijuana are banned, and there must be no evidence from a public right-of-way that growing is occurring.

(Contact Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @Eric_Reports.)